To best appreciate Whaleback, first make a quick stop at another magical place for a brief geography lesson. Aim your car to Good Harbor Beach (corner of C-651 and M-22) and make your way to the water. Look north to see Whaleback from a distance and study the outline of this sloping promontory. You'll understand why people – sailors, perhaps – named this local icon for its resemblance to those giants of the sea.
Now steer north on M-22 toward Leland and the trail. About a mile past M-204, as M-22 serpentines its way along Lake Leelanau, look for the Whaleback Natural Area sign to your left. The sign is subtle (and nearly invisible from the north), so keep your eyes keen. Hit the trailhead now, or, maximize your hike time on Whaleback by first grabbing a bite for the trail a few blocks north in downtown Leland at Stone House Bread Café (407 South Main St., 231-256-2577). Try the Muffulleta with ham, salami, Swiss, provolone and olive relish on fresh, chewy ciabatta.
Once you reach the trailhead, set a leisurely pace up the soft forest trail. There's no hurry here, because the trail is only 3/4-mile total. Listen for the songs of wild birds, especially diverse during the late April and May migration.
Notice a forest littered with deadfall, evidence of powerful blows that careen through from Lake Michigan. Keep an eye out for a stump to the trail's left that suggests a tale of logging in a forest long gone – it measures four feet in diameter and is covered with moss decades old.
At the crest of this glacial moraine – a remnant of glaciers that retreated about 11,000 years ago – wander the short path to the overlook platform and get the payoff. The bluff drops 300 feet to the shore, delivering the green-blue waters of Good Harbor Bay below. Pyramid Point is straight west across the shimmering expanse – look for the wide band of sand on its face, evidence of a sandslide in 1998.
Hike down the Whaleback and head back to Leland to browse the galleries and shops of downtown and Fishtown. Cap off your day at The Bluebird Restaurant & Bar (101 River St., 231-256-9081) overlooking the river with a glass of Northern Michigan wine and a basket of fried Great Lakes smelt.
Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. [email protected]
Note: This article was first published in May 2006, and was updated for the web April 2008.